Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko (A)
Pop culture has presented the militarization of police equipment and tactics as a response to an increasingly more dangerous world, one where criminals are routinely arming themselves with assault rifles and armor piercing bullets. ‘Escalation,’ as the coda of Batman Begins put it.
In Rise of the Warrior Cop Radley Balko gives a more accurate explanation: rather than a straight-forward cause and effect step it’s rather the result of government policy and a changing mentality of police officers that has, over half a century, eroded ideas such as ‘police officers serve and protect the public’ and ‘a man’s home is his castle.’ Balko frames the militarization of local police departments and the creation and rise of SWAT units as an assault on the Fourth Amendment and the Castle Doctrine, but throughout the book he also charts how the mindset of the police has morphed into an “us versus them” view where any civilian is potentially an armed assailant and a show of force at the outset of a raid is considered the safest approach. Police officers no longer see themselves as standing before the public as protectors and keepers of the peace but instead as soldiers in unfriendly territory, and their tactics followed likewise.
Balko examines several trends and events that each, in their own way, helped introduce and normalize things like no-knock warrants and military grade hardware in small town police departments. From the civil unrest of the 1960s and the War on Drugs to the War on Terror and the ever-present need for politicians to appear tough on crime, there’s a slow but steady creep as police departments would take on hardware and methods previously unused, which would then become the norm and be defended in the courts and by politicians. The recurring story throughout the book is that a new, more powerful instrument would be introduced, or a greater show of force would be devised, and once it was out there it became not only standard operating procedure, but considered a necessity in order for police to do their job.
But what is their job? One of the contributing factors of the trend examined is how police officers are either seen or see themselves not as a reactive force anymore but as an active one. Having a police department on hand to fight crime and protect the innocent has started to become an outdated way of thinking, and instead the police are seen as a solution to a problem that will have to be created in order to justify the increasing militarization that seems inevitable.
That “solution searching for a problem” idea is just one aspect of the downright perverse mindset that has settled in as the police have become less distinguishable from the military, alongside the aforementioned “us versus them” view and the pop culture-fueled belief that the world is so much more dangerous than back in The Good Old Days when Officer Friendly could patrol a town on foot, chatting with the locals and getting to know the people he serves and protects as actual people, and not potential threats.
Then there’s also how police work has attracted people seeking a job that is inherently thrilling and empowering, a desire that perpetuates the flow of military hardware into local police departments as no one wants to see other departments getting M-16s and flash grenades while they don’t. Not that this acquisition of new equipment is always coupled with proper training and an understanding of when to use them. One of the most distressing revelations of the book is how SWAT units, created to deal with precarious situations like hostage takings or criminals barricaded in houses, have come to be used for such mundane tasks as serving search warrants.
Increasingly, police forces have prioritized their own sense of safety and power over doing their job in the most efficient and restrained manner possible. Of the thousands of SWAT missions to serve warrants a far too high number have involved non-violent offenders in circumstances that did not require storming a house (to say nothing of the innocent people terrorized by such incidences). A not entirely surprising effect of the rise of SWAT units is the belief that intelligence gathering and looking for less forceful methods are unnecessary when you have force on your side. It’s just easier (and more thrilling) to break down a door and rush in, guns drawn.
Despite the overwhelming number of instances of excessive force, of the erosion of the Fourth Amendment, and of police officers serving their own interests rather than that of the community, Balko never goes into hyperbole or condemns all police officers. There are times when the veil of objectivity starts to fall off and Balko’s frustration or horror comes through, but considering the subject material it’s difficult not to sympathize. Overall, Balko presents his case compellingly and with more than sufficient research; the rare lapses into emotional rhetoric are few and serve to underscore how frightening and wide-reaching the militarization of domestic law enforcement is.
Balko ends the book by asking what reforms are possible, but the biggest factor must be the perception among the general public. Polls may show people think crime is higher than it is, and people just may not care about violations of civil liberties that don’t affect them personally, and this is the biggest roadblock to meaningful change. But books like this are important in making clear just how bad things are, and it helps that Balko is an engaging, persuasive writer.